Upcoming: NUCLEARWATERS seminar with Stefan Guth

The NUCLEARWATERS project invites you to our next seminar, scheduled for Tuesday 7 June at 15.15-17.00 CET (Stockholm Time). It will take place in hybrid format at the Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment (big seminar room) and via Zoom (https://kth-se.zoom.us/j/61154466603):

Stefan Guth, researcher at the Department of Eastern European History at Heidelberg University in Germany, will present his paper with the title “The Atom, the Human-Made River and the Radioactive Lake: Desalting and Degrading Water in Shevchenko/Aqtau, 1959-2019”. Afterwards, we will discuss the nuclear waters of Kazakhstan, the Soviet Union, and beyond.

Join us at KTH or online via Zoom! We are looking forward to a great discussion.


Water often lives in the margins of affirmative narratives about nuclear energy, as an unglamorous ancillary resource used to cool reactors or process uranium before being disposed of. But this was not the case in the Soviet city of Shevchenko in Kazakhstan, whose nuclear complex combined uranium mining, nuclear energy generation and atomic-powered water desalination to great effect – facilitating what was touted domestically and abroad as a ‘nuclear oasis’ on the desertlike Eastern shore of the Caspian Sea.

Studying this highly selective sociotechnical imaginary alerts us to the deliberate sightedness and blindness of Soviet nuclear technopolitics, whereas analysing Shevchenko as an envirotechnical system reveals more complex and ambiguous entanglements of water and nuclear energy. While Shevchenko’s NPP fed a ‘human-made river’ of freshwater, its hydrometallurgical uranium-processing plant discharged a constant stream of liquid tailings into what became one of the world’s largest radioactive lakes by the end of the Soviet period. At the BN-350 fast breeder reactor, the hydraulic system had the potential to wreak havoc upon the nuclear part of the reactor, as the sodium-steam junction between the primary and the secondary cooling loops posed a hard-to-manage risk of explosions and fires. And while the Caspian Sea was an indispensable part of the NPP’s design, providing seawater for cooling and desalination, Soviet nuclear technologists had failed to account for the long-term sea level fluctuations for which the Caspian is known, and which threatened to inundate the expensive artefact in the late 1980s.

In my paper, I will argue that only by combining the study of imaginaries with the analysis of envirotechnical systems can we begin to understand both the short-term motivations of Soviet technologists and the long-term implications of their actions, thereby bridging the gap between the vastly different timescales of nuclear technologies and nuclear ecologies.

‘The atom gives water to drink!’
Illustration in an article on Shevchenko’s nuclear-powered water desalination plant in the children’s illustrated journal ‘Koster’, 1969

Nuclear waters at the centre of a Soviet technocratic culture analysis

By Achim Klüppelberg

“In designing the water-graphite reactors used at Chernobyl, Soviet nuclear engineers chose specific design features that made serious – albeit not catastrophic – accidents all but inevitable.”1

Soviet nuclear power plants in the vast majority of cases depended on water as a necessary and safeguarding coolant. But where should one get enough of it in the largely land-locked territory of the Soviet Union? Soviet technocratic planners happily took on this challenge. Over the centuries, the country’s grand rivers, notably the Volga, the Don and the Dnepr, had hosted urban centres and industries, providing them with much-needed water resources. So why not use the immense flow of these waterways for harnessing a new and even greater industry – that of the peaceful atom? The Soviet civilian nuclear programme was one of the most ambitious of the world. Before 1986, the year in which Chernobyl struck, the nuclear industry held grand prospects for further investment and development. Being a country as vast as the USSR, in which 75% of the population lived in the west while 80% of (mostly fossil) energy resources were located in the east, technocratic planners envisioned nuclear power as one way to secure a stable energy supply, especially for industrial hotspots in western Russia and eastern Ukraine.2

Soviet projections in the 1980s stated that nuclear energy, together with coal, would be the only realistic choice for the future production of electricity, leaving hydro power deliberately out of the picture.3 Facing these circumstances, the nuclear inner circle decided, or so it seems, to turn a blind eye to possible detrimental consequences to both the natural environment and human populations, in order to reinvigorate an ailing Soviet economy and facilitate the advent of Communism.

In 1979 only 4.5% of the energy mix of the USSR actually derived from nuclear electricity production.4 Despite well-developed hydropower resources the country was excessively dependent on fossil fuels and stayed so until the red empire’s dissolution in 1991.5 However, Soviet technocrats mobilized tremendous resources into the development of the nuclear industry, hoping to diversify the Soviet energy mix. At the union level central planners agreed to increase nuclear power production from 16 GWe in 1982 to 90 GWe in 1990 and then even further to 200 GWe in 2000, hence aiming to increase nuclear power output 12.5-fold in just 18 years.6 In fact, by 1990 the Soviet Union had succeeded in installing 38.3 GWe.7 Although falling considerably short of the planned goal, these numbers show how technocratic planners in the Soviet Union at least partly managed to implement their vision of a nuclear future for their country.

But how did they use the country’s water resources to their advantage? Rivers, lakes and seashores could be prepared to host nuclear power stations, but each of them had important implications for local stakeholders, such as fisheries, agriculture and local municipalities. It is clear that water was, on the one hand, a limiting factor for the construction of nuclear power plants due to the necessity of sufficient coolant, and, on the other, an interconnecting trans-systemic substance, which incorporated the nuclear industry into the Soviet socio-economic utopia. My part of the NUCLEARWATERS project strives to investigate this linkage between technocratic culture and water, between central planning ambitions and atomic waterways and between communist historical-materialist ideals and nature’s essence of life. Only by investigating this complex of ideology, culture and material environment will scholars come closer to understanding the Soviet nuclear industry. If we want to judge nuclear safety in Europe’s East, this is necessary.

“Science demands sacrifices.”8

Petrosyants, chairman of the State Committee for the Use of Nuclear Energy in the USSR on 6 May 1986, 10 days after the explosions of reactor 4 at Chernobyl.

1Geist: Political Fallout: The Failure of Emergency Management at Chernobyl’, p. 107.

2Semenov: Nuclear power in the Soviet Union, in: International Atomic Energy Agency Bulletin Vol. 25, No. 2, June 1983, p. 47.

3Medvedev, Z.: The Legacy of Chernobyl, New York a. London 1990, pp. 300-301.

4Margulis: Atomnaya ėnergiya i radiatsionnaya bezopasnost’, Moskva 1983, p. 125.

5CIA: USSR Energy Atlas, Washington a. Springfield 1985, p. 7.

6Vorob’ev et al.: Radiation Safety of Atomic Power Plants in the USSR, in: Atomic Energy (Vol. 54, No.4, April 1983), Luxembourg/ Berlin/ Heidelberg 1983, pp. 290-301, here p. 290.

7https://pris.iaea.org/PRIS/CountryStatistics/CountryDetails.aspx?current=RU [25.04.2019]). Also IAEA: Nuclear Power Reactors in the World (Reference Data Series No.2, 2018 Edition), Vienna 2018.

8Medwedew, G.: Verbrannte Seelen. Die Katastrophe von Tschernobyl, Munich a. Vienna 1991, p. 222.